Don’t underestimate what it takes to collaborate

Employment exclusion is a complex problem – one that no single organisation can solve. The solution requires collaboration.

On the topic of collaboration and what it takes to collaborate successively, I wanted to share some of our insights gleaned from a six year project addressing employment exclusion in Queensland.

In the $5m plus project which Social Ventures Australia (SVA) facilitated, government bodies, corporates and non-profits collaborated to support 57 social enterprises. The result was the creation of nearly 500 jobs for people disadvantaged in the labour market – whether because they were Indigenous Australians, long-term unemployed, youth at risk or had mental health issues. (For the full story, see Laying the foundations for collective impact in solving unemployment.)

Employment exclusion is a complex problem – one that no single organisation can solve. The solution requires collaboration. In this case, the project increased impact by drawing on the capacity for social procurement, the expertise and/or funding of multiple organisations and an integrated approach to investment in social enterprises. (See the SVA report: Solving employment exclusion using social enterprises) However the facilitative role that we played to achieve the necessary collaboration was significant.

What started small with just three parties: a city council, a corporate and SVA grew into a broad collaboration between three city councils, four government departments, two philanthropic foundations, numerous corporates providing pro bono expertise and the social enterprises themselves.

Some of the insights resonate with and build on those published in NPC and Impetus Trust’s report, Collaborating for Impact and reflect the challenges of working collaboratively:

  1. Aim for one shared agenda so that you can keep your eye on the goal – the impact on the beneficiaries and enable various bodies to participate and co-invest.
  2. It takes a lot of time to develop effective and trusting partnerships. We built the relationships gradually; trust grew as we delivered on what we said we would do and through our regular and consistent communications.
  3. Developing a sense of equality between funders and the intermediary helps to create a collaborative culture. Initially we were simply seen as another service provider, however as the relationships grew and we stepped into the facilitator role, they became more collaborative and changed what we could achieve.
  4. Getting social procurement off the ground requires a lot of education and needs a champion in the procurement department to help cut through bureaucracy. This required the most effort because the council or government purchasers hadn’t necessarily bought in to the project agenda; they had other priorities such as price, quality or risk management.
  5. Implementing one reporting framework for impact measurement makes for much easier communication between the participating organisations. However for us this was hard to achieve. While we had one reporting process to the steering group, it was only in the last phase that we moved to one reporting framework for the funding organisations.
  6. Involving funders and other stakeholders in the process helps them to better understand the time and effort that collaboration takes and to recognise the value of the intermediary or facilitator. Funding is then more likely to meet the project’s needs.

One of the overarching lessons was just how much time and effort it takes to create and maintain collaborative relationships. It’s not something you do once at the beginning and then forget about thinking the relationship will maintain itself. It’s an ongoing activity.

A lot of frameworks put building trust at the start and don’t emphasise that you’re cycling around the framework. Sometimes there are new people in the organisation or new leaders introducing different priorities. We found we had to come back to nurturing the relationships again and again.

Importantly, we brought the funding bodies on the journey with us so that as they built their expertise in social enterprise development they also began to recognise the value of investing in a skilled intermediary organisation that could deliver the required support as well as hold the evolving collaboration together.

(This blog post first appeared on the NPC blog on 26 March 2013)